The holidays arrived in full force at Dahlonega’s 2019 Lighting of the Square last Friday with a sizable crowd that was “definitely bigger than Gold Rush,” according to Tourism Director Sam McDuffie.
“I’d make a conservative estimate of 7,500 to 9,000, Over 2,200 registered on our door counter,” he said. “I’ll tell you, it was a sight to see.”
Rebecca Knighten, co-owner of The Spice and Tea Exchange of Dahlonega on East Main Street agreed.
“There was a sharp increase over Gold Rush,” she said. “The store emptied out about 6 o’clock, but they all came back. People stayed.”
Julia Norton saw the same kind of business at the Humble Candle.
“People stayed and enjoyed the square,” she said. “There were so many out-of-towners and locals, and business was up.”
Giggle Monkey Toys had “record numbers,” said co-owner Tammy Clower.
“There were over 2,600 visitors,” she said. “And they were buying.”
There were also customers throughout the day, but most right around tree-lighting time, she said.
“In 37 years I don’t think I’ve ever seen as many people on the square for any occasion, even Gold Rush,” said Thomas Scanlin, owner of Studio Jewelers. “There were four of five people deep in front of my shop windows. It was a rousing success.”
City Manager Bill Schmid agreed.
“The annual tradition kicked off a month of Dahlonega holiday events in a big way,” he said. “Estimates of attendance vary widely, but to say the crowd was huge and standing room only would not be an exaggeration.”
Restaurants, too, noticed the increase in business—possibly too much business.
“I heard, across the board, there was about a two-hour-wait,” said Deb Rowe, owner of Shenanigans Irish Pub. “Our sales were up by about 30 percent.”
By Sunday the restaurant was running out of food, and staff was exhausted, she said.
“Obviously, it was a very significant event. I know they’ve been trying to build it, and they did a good job,” Rowe said. “We’re going to have to set up differently to accommodate the difference in attendance. We should have treated it a lot more like Gold Rush. We’ve got an official Black Friday notebook for preparations now.”
Schmid attributes the event’s growing success to several factors.
“Good weather was a big help as families sought options to Black Friday malls,” he said. “Streets were closed for several hours to create a pedestrian only zone and much appreciated ample nearby parking was made available on UNG's campus. Carriage rides were provided from two locations to hundreds of visitors until 11 p.m. and many restaurants and retail businesses had extended hours to accommodate the large crowd.”
Schmid also gave credit to the Downtown Dahlonega Business Association’s OFC Committee, “and all who helped prepare for the event, and spread the word.”
McDuffie believes Dahlonega “is still reaping the benefits” of last year’s Southern Living article on the town’s Christmas celebration. “They keep sharing it on their web site about once every four to six weeks,” he said. “That helps.”
He collected zip codes from about 100 people on the square during the evening and found people from just about all over the country, including Maine, Utah, New York, Louisiana, Florida, Texas, Virginia and Alabama.
“I see the success as a direct reflection of the community’s volunteers and hard working, steadfast merchants,” Mayor Sam Norton said. “I keep thinking how blessed we are to live somewhere others only get to see once a year.”
The next major Christmas event takes place Saturday, Dec. 7 at 4 p.m. with the annual Christmas Parade, followed by a concert in Hancock Park by Radford Windham & Step Back Cadillac.